"To Fly Is More Fascinating Than to Read about Flying": British R.F.C. Memoirs of the First World War, 1918-1939

By Isherwood, Ian A. | WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

"To Fly Is More Fascinating Than to Read about Flying": British R.F.C. Memoirs of the First World War, 1918-1939


Isherwood, Ian A., WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts


Literature concerning aerial warfare was a new genre created by the First World War. With manned flight in its infancy, there were no significant novels or memoirs of pilots in combat before 1914. It was apparent to British publishers during the war that the new technology afforded a unique perspective on the battlefield, one that was practically made for an expanding literary marketplace. As such former Royal Flying Corps pilots created a new type of war book, one written by authors self-described as "Knights in the Air", a literary mythology carefully constructed by pilots and publishers and propagated in the inter-war period through flight memoirs (Morrow 215-217). This small but important body of martial literature sought to distinguish the pilot memoir from other war books by written by infantry officers in the 1920s and 1930s. The air war was seen as a more righteous face of battle - one certainly with risks - but an experience distinctive from that of the trenches and essentially remembered differently. Pilots created the chivalric myth to demonstrate the heroism of air combat and the "spirit" or high morale of R.F.C. flight crews, particularly, as many of their contemporaries were writing grim accounts of infantry life on the western front in the 1920s and 1930s. The war in the air, to these authors, was a different war than that faced by soldiers on the ground, and pilots sought to show that difference to preserve a heroic war experience in an age of increasing anti-war sentiment and public anxiety over international volatility in Europe in the 1930s. The aerial war was remembered as a unique an exceptional experience, one that created the image of the pilot as a hero of modern warfare, with an unmistakable link to the nostalgic past.

Memoirs and Memoirists

From the onset of war the actions of the R.F.C. piqued public interest. That interest led to published accounts of the R.F.C. in periodical literature and popular depictions of air combat during the war. Some of these depictions were written by future war memoirists who were on active service and who wrote short accounts of their war experiences as essays or stories for periodicals. Soon after the war, author Paul Bewsher described his intention of writing his war memoir, "to give as vivid a portrayal as possible of a branch of war which, in England at any rate, influenced the general public more than any other" (viii). As Bewsher noted, the public was interested in exciting and adventurous accounts of the war. The flight memoir was a natural book to meet this demand.

The post-war boom of war literature, most prominent in 1919-1921 and then in 1928-1931, was an opportunity for former R.F.C. pilots to publish their war books as a distinctive niche within a flooded market of war recollections. 2 Collectively, R.F.C. memoirs are distinctive subgenre of the war book; the experiences they depict are similar, largely elitist, and represent a distinctive form of combat narrative. R.F.C. memoirs had a significant presence in the literary market and demonstrated a considerable longevity in print: they were published throughout the inter-war period with some of the best being released in the 1930s. This was after the boom in war literature was thought to be over by many in the publishing industry (Brown 299). The experiences depicted were exceptional compared to those of common soldiers - some were written by former POWs who had survived either German or Ottoman captivity, most of whom escaped, further distinguishing their works from other war memoirists. Most were written by pilots and only one, by A.G.J. Whitehouse, was written by an NCO who served as a gunner/observer.5 Of the fifteen accounts considered in this essay, which have been chosen because they are narrative non-fiction and not published diaries or unit histories, all authors eventually became pilots in the R.F.C. and served in squadrons primarily on the western front. 4 Many of these are iconic flight memoirs and some, if such a thing exists, would be included in any canon of combat flight literature of the twentieth century. …

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